Harry Nilsson





Singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson was born Harry Edward Nilsson III in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1941. As a young man, he moved with his family to California and after graduating, took a night job in the computer processing department of a bank. His days were spent writing songs and making demos for music publishers. Eventually, Mercury Records signed him and he released his first single, "Donna", under the name Johnny Niles. He moved on to Capitol Records where he recorded more unsuccessful singles and sang lead vocals for an outfit called the New Salvation Singers.

In the mid '60s he wrote a few songs with Phil Spector that were recorded by the Ronettes and the Modern Folk Quartet, and suddenly, Harry was a much sought after songwriter. The Monkees recorded his tune, "Cuddly Toy" and the Yardbirds did "Ten Little Indians" on a single in their waning days. Harry's songs were also recorded by The Turtles, Rick Nelson, Lulu, Blood, Sweat and Tears as well as Mary Hopkin.

By 1967, Harry landed a recording contract with RCA Records. His first album, called "The Pandemonium Shadow Show", featuring witty lyrics and a Beatles medley called "You Can't Do That", was a commercial flop, but received good critical notices. More importantly, it attracted the attention of the Beatles themselves. John Lennon and Paul McCartney cited Nilsson as one of their favourite artists while addressing the media at the launching of their Apple label. Lennon even phoned Nilsson to congratulate him on the album. Nilsson quit his job at the bank the very next day and turned his attention to music.

Three Dog Night boosted Harry's career even further when they took his song, "One" into the Top Ten in 1969, and Nilsson's second LP, "Aerial Ballet" began to get more attention. Two months later, "Everybody's Talkin'" was chosen as the theme for the film "Midnight Cowboy", and suddenly, Harry Nilsson had his own Top Ten hit, one that would win a Grammy Award. The irony was that, although Nilsson was primarily identified as a singer/songwriter, the song was actually written by folk-rocker, Fred Neil.

Harry also provided the soundtrack for a film by Otto Preminger, called 'Skidoo', which turned out to be the very last outing for Groucho Marx. He also wrote scores for other films and composed the catchy theme to the TV show "The Courtship of Eddie's Father."

Nilsson was never one to be content to stay within definite categories, as demonstrated by two albums he released in 1970. The first was devoted entirely to covers of songs by Randy Newman (then just emerging as a performer); another was his soundtrack to an animated children's special, "The Point", which included the top forty hit "Me and My Arrow".

Oddly enough, it was a cover of yet another artist's song, (Badfinger) that gave Nilsson his biggest hit single. "Without You" appeared on the album, "Nilsson Schmilsson", which included a couple of other minor hits, "Coconut" and "Jump into the Fire". During the first half of the 1970s, he continued to broaden his range from the well-crafted, peppy, sensitive tunes that had dotted his early releases, cutting some tougher, more sour work.

He lost some of his edge, however, with 1973's "A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night", a collection of pop standards with an orchestra conducted by arranger Gordon Jenkins (most noted for his work with Frank Sinatra). His affection for the music wasn't entirely surprising, as there had always been a strong Tin Pan Alley flavour to much of his writing, but, with disco music on the horizon, it wasn't exactly in step with the times.

Much of Nilsson's notoriety came from a period in the mid-1970s when he was a drinking buddy of John Lennon in Los Angeles (where Lennon was living during a separation from Yoko Ono). The drunken pair were thrown out of L.A.'s Troubadour club in a well-publicized incident, after disrupting The Smother's Brothers act. Lennon offered to produce Nilsson's next album. The timing could not have been worse, as Nilsson lost his voice during the sessions, rupturing one of his vocal cords, keeping it a secret out of fear that Lennon would abandon the project. Released as "Pussycats", it was his last album to make the Top 100. During the same period, he also embarked on a project with another L.A. based ex-Beatle, Ringo Starr, acting and writing music for the little-seen film, "Son of Dracula". The movie was generally regarded as a failure despite a strong cast (starring Ringo) and great songs.

Harry's voice had been damaged by his hard living and he croaked his way through recording sessions with a bleeding throat. It was amazing he could do anything at all with what was left, let alone complete another album. This new chapter of the Nilsson story continued with two more LA session-men albums 'Duit on Mon Dei' (formerly God's Greatest Hits) and 'Sandman', by which time the voice was recovering much of its former power and warmth.

The session men were gone in time for Harry's last RCA album 'Knillssonn', a pop album with orchestral backing. This delightful collection of songs was simply not publicised by an indifferent RCA and so never hit its deserved heights. Harry left RCA somewhat disillusioned. He was only ever to make one more full studio LP - 1979s 'Flash Harry' which was never even released in America.

The rest of his life, Harry spent with his wife Una and their ever-growing army of children. Soundtracks for Disney's 'Popeye' movie and contributed songs to various other films and records were all the world was offered while Harry devoted a lot of his time and energy into promoting the 'Campaign To End Handgun Violence' after his friend John Lennon was shot in 1980.

In the early 90's, Harry's health deteriorated rapidly. First diagnosed a diabetic, he later had a major heart attack and he died peacefully in his sleep of heart failure in 1994, just after finishing the vocal tracks for a new album that would never be released.

In 1995, various artists, including Ringo Starr, Stevie Nicks, Victoria Williams and The B-52's Fred Schneider, paid tribute to Nilsson on the LP, "For the Love of Harry". That same year, RCA released the 2-CD anthology "Personal Best".

In 2006, a documentary called Who is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him) was shown at the Seattle International Film Festival, the Santa Barbara Film Festival and the 7th Annual Mods & Rockers Film Festival. The film was re-released on September 17th, 2010 with newly added, rare footage of Nilsson, extra interviews and family photos. A DVD version followed in October.